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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Stop Blaming Newtown Tragedy On Mental Illness

This is the first time I’ve copied over an entire article of mine, and I’m probably infringing my own copyright, but I think this is an important discussion and I can only join in here.

In the wake of the terrible events of last Friday in Newtown, which left 27 dead-20 of them young schoolchildren-social media such as Twitter and Facebook played a key role in communicating the shocking news and expressing an international sense of outrage and grief. But they also spread misinformation and misapprehensions just as quickly. The gunman was initially misidentified, and his murdered mother was erroneously connected to Sandy Hook Elementray School. But while these errors of fact were soon corrected, a deeper misunderstanding took hold over the following few days as a shattered nation tried to understand an inexplicable tragedy.

Writing is seen on a home in Newtown, Connecticut on Dec. 17, 2012. The two funerals on Monday ushered in what will be a week of memorial services and burials for the 20 children and six adults massacred when gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown last Friday. (Eric Thayer/Reuters, via Landov)

An uncorroborated rumor about the gunman, Adam Lanza, suggested that he suffered from Asperger’s syndrome-a now out-of-use term for a higher-functioning form of autism. By Saturday, a blog post by Lisa Long-“I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother: A Mom’s Perspective On The Mental Illness Conversation In America”-had gone viral, been retweeted hundreds of thousands of times, and republished on Gawker, Britain’s Daily Mail, and on the Huffington Post. Long, the mother of a 13-year-old with behavioral problems, argued, “It’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.”

There are various problems with Long’s impassioned piece when it comes to “talking” about mental illness, partly due to the fact it contained a slew of questionable diagnoses-Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant, or Intermittent Explosive Disorder-which aren’t officially recognized as mental illnesses at all. Police Inspector Michael Brown, who runs the highly respected Mental HealthCop blog, called it “potentially the worst article I have ever read about mental health and violence following an atrocity.” Other critics took issue with the way Long had publically demonized her son as a potential mass murderer.  While some complained that Long herself was being demonized as a bad mother, the author from Boise, Idaho, issued a joint statement with one of her erstwhile critics about the need for accessible and affordable mental health care in the U.S.

The Huffington Post published a corrective article, “No Link Between Asperger’s Syndrome And Violence, Experts Say.” But to date, the corrective article has only received 2,500 Facebook “likes” compared to the more than a million received by Long’s original piece. The misinformation had circled the virtual world before the truth had even begun to get its cyber-boots on.

By Sunday, the line had grown into a swelling chorus. Erik Erickson, the founder and editor of the popular Republican website Redstate, was averring: “Discussions of gun control are easier to have than discussions about mental health.” The owner of one of the many gun ranges in the rural rolling hills around Newtown, Conn., was telling The New York Times: “A gun didn’t kill all those children, a disturbed man killed all those children.” David Rivkin, a constitutional lawyer who served in both the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, appeared on the BBC World Service to tell millions of listeners overseas: “It’s not about gun ownership, it is about mental illness.” “If there’s one unifying feature of all these atrocities,” Rivkin stated in an interview for the popular Newshour program on Monday night, “it’s that they were all committed by mentally unbalanced people who need to be confined for the protection of those around them and other people.”

Despite the promise of a conversation about mental health, misinformation and ignorance became the norm in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy.

The only problem with this argument is that it has no basis in fact. If mental illness were the key factor in multiple gun homicides like Newtown, then other countries would regularly experience the kind of carnage visited on towns and cities in the U.S. on almost on a monthly basis. But they don’t. In Britain, an advanced study by Manchester University into “Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness” has found most people who kill more than one person are neither mentally ill, nor mental health patients, As Dr. David H. Barlow, a senior expert in comparative mental health-care systems and Emeritus Professor at Boston University, told The Daily Beast, “the incidence of mental illness is quite consistent across Europe and America.” Yet the statistics for the homicide and suicide rates are much higher in the U.S. than most of the rest of Europe, with Americans 100 times more likely to die to a gun-related death than in the U.K.

Despite the promise of a conversation about mental health, misinformation and ignorance became the norm in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy.  British CNN host Piers Morgan suggested that anyone with a history of mental illness should be banned from owning a gun in the U.S., but that would include almost 50 per cent of Americans who are expected to suffer from some condition in their lifetime.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 25 percent of U.S. adults currently suffer from some kind of mental ilnness-though this would include phobias and obsessive disorders. In 2011, government data calculated that around 5 percent of the U.S. population suffered from severe mental illness, while Professor Barlow estimates that somewhere around 1 percent  of the U.S. population will be suffering from psychosis-including delusions and hallucinations-at any one time. “But even they show an only slightly elevated risk of violence,” Barlow told The Daily Beast, “with a small increased risk of around 5 or 10 percent above normal.” Meanwhile, those who suffer from psychosis are much more likely to be the victims of homicide or kill themselves.

For Dr. Nadine Kaslow, professor and chief psychologist at Emory University School of Medicine-who was recently elected to the presidency of the American Psychological Association-the recent spate of generalized and pejorative statements made about mental illness are “extremely unfortunate” as they “stigmatize a whole group.”

“When I talk to my patients after an incident like Newtown,” Kaslow told The Daily Beast, “my patients differentiate themselves from these killers, because they say these people lack empathy.” Though Kaslow acknowledges that those with learning disabilities or mood disorders can be aggressive and display challenging behaviors, this doesn’t translate into calculated acts of violence. “We really do not see any correlation between Asperger’s syndrome and gun violence,” Kaslow reiterated.

Those millions of Americans who suffer from mental illnesses and learning disabilities have therefore become collateral damage in the soul-searching since the Newtown massacre. What conditions Lanza suffered from, or didn’t, will take a long investigation, but like other multiple-gun homicides, his atrocity required almost military-style planning and execution, which is unlikely given against the cognitive and emotional deficits of acute psychiatric illness. It was this element of forethought and calculation which led to Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing extremist who killed eight with a bomb in Oslo then shot dead 69, mainly teenagers, holidaying on Ut√łyaIsland in 2011, being considered sane enough to face trial and a prison term in Norway. Though Breivik’s Islamophobic ideology could be described as crazy, the means Breivik chose to pursue his apocalyptic race war were rational and deliberative given those precepts, and he showed no sign of clinical psychosis.

In this light, Long’s imprecation to “start talking about mental illness rather than guns” looks like a distraction from the more probable factor to explain America’s elevated homicide and suicide rates: the U.S. is a complete outlier compared to other industrialized nations in its startling, almost 90 out of 100, number of guns per capita. Apart from the extreme youth and number of his victims, the other hallmark of Lanza’s massacre was the use of a semi-automatic Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle (which has horrifically doubled in price since the Newtown attack). Assault weapons were banned until 2004, when the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was not renewed-largely thanks to the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association.

In what must count as one of the most successful campaigns in U.S. history, the NRA has managed to reduce support for gun control in the U.S. by 50 per cent in the last 20 years. One of its key lines of argument throughout that time has been that, “It’s not guns that kill people, but people who kill people.” On Friday the NRA’s Facebook page was taken down, and its Twitter feed went silent, and the organization seemed to have no response to the mounting calls for gun control in the wake of the most recent tragedy.

According to Mark Borkowski, a British PR titan with extensive knowledge of crisis-management campaigns, “anybody in this territory is equipped to deal with extreme events like this, and defend against or capitalize on them depending on what happens.” “The key thing is to sow doubt,” Borkowski told The Daily Beast. “Doubt is a product, and you have sleepers and advocates who are well briefed to construct a counter-narrative in times of crisis.”

There is no evidence that the NRA or any of its lobbying arms has been involved in any kind of crisis management in the last few days. However, opponents of gun control are now using a variant of the old NRA adage, “It’s not guns who kill people, but mentally disturbed people who killed people.” In doing so they are perpetuating what is effectively a slur against millions of Americans who suffer from mental illness, and stigmatizing a group who already suffer enough.

Originally published in the Daily Beast


  1. For my own part when I wrote my first few thoughts here I wondered at the actual and accepted definitions of “mental illness”. I am not sure I have really had that answered yet.

    To be clear, my own usage is “an illness of the mind, not an illness of the body”. An illness of thought, rather than biology.

    Autism spectrum disorders including Asbergers (which is what my friends with Asbergers call it, so I will follow their lead on whether it is a real term or not) do not fall into that category. These are medical conditions that happen to effect the organ people think with.

    I believe people can – and do – make themselves “sick in the head” by thinking the wrong things. This is, as I have said at length, what I believe is at the root of our problem with violence in general. People of their own volition thinking and believing in ways that affect their minds and their souls, souring and sickening themselves in their actions and behaviors.

    Your point is well taken and has to some extent entered the conversations following Sandy Hook. It is very important that people understand that the biological illnesses that affect the brain are not at issue here, that these are not the causes of violence. The illnesses of the mind – the ephemeral ‘organ’ that is created of and by the thoughts we allow ourselves to carry – these are the means by which we arrive at violence.

  2. spacemanspiff

    He did not have Asperger’s and was misdiagnosed. Does anybody know of he visited a psychiatrist? Many questions sorrounding the killer.

    There is a lot I agree with in this post and a lot that I disagree with.

    There are various problems with Long’s impassioned piece when it comes to “talking” about mental illness, partly due to the fact it contained a slew of questionable diagnoses-Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant, or Intermittent Explosive Disorder-which aren’t officially recognized as mental illnesses at all.

    Ok then.

    Quoting a psychologist when speaking about mental illness isn’t exactly something I can go with either. Again, a lot of things good things here but I strongly disagree with some of your sources and selective quoting. I’ll leave it at that and thank you for the discussion this might elicit.  

  3. bubbanomics

    “From what I’ve been told, Adam was aware of her petitioning the court for conservatorship and (her) plans to have him committed,” said Joshua Flashman, 25, who grew up not far from where the shooting took place. “Adam was apparently very upset about this. He thought she just wanted to send him away. From what I understand, he was really, really angry. I think this could have been it, what set him off.”

    I’m happy to see more restrictions on guns: types, clip size, etc.  It’ll be expensive to enforce, but worth it.  I do have to say that I remain unconvinced on the mental health side… it seems that most of the crimes of the Sandy Hook type involve mental disturbance of some sort.

    Recent studies have shown that the mentally ill are no more violent than other people, except when they are off their medications, or have been abusing drugs or alcohol.

    Indications of mental illness were far more common among the 100 cases than was evidence supporting popular explanations that emerged in the days after some of these spectacular events. Violent video games or television were mentioned in only a handful of cases. Three killers showed an interest in the occult. Racist ideas were apparent in the backgrounds of 16.

    But 48 killers had some kind of formal diagnosis, often schizophrenia. Some of the diagnoses came after examinations by psychiatrists in trial preparations — which did not usually help in their defense, as only eight avoided conviction on grounds of insanity. Twenty-five killers received diagnoses before their crimes, which illustrates another recurring issue: They do not just suddenly snap. Many have long histories not only of mental illness but of failure and dislocation.

    In spite of their education levels, for instance, a striking number — more than half — were unemployed.

    ”The high education level is one thing I hadn’t anticipated, and the link to unemployment is another thing I didn’t realize,” Professor Blumstein said. ”One of the things that education does is raise expectations, and raised ones are more readily frustrated.”

    For people without the emotional resources to accommodate it, frustration ”can lead to rage, can lead to suicide,” Professor Blumstein said.


  4. Cheryl Kopec

    Thanks for writing this, Peter. As soon as you cited Long’s essay, I cringed, but then saw that you followed it up with some of the criticisms.

    You make some important points, one of them being that mental illness isn’t easily defined or characterized. I run a listserv for people who use psychiatric service dogs, so by definition, every member of that list (including me, with combat-related PTSD) is mentally ill. Yet I would no sooner expect any of us to walk into a school with a semiautomatic weapon and start mowing down students and staff than I would expect members of my church to do so.

    Blaming mental illness further stigmatizes it and exacerbates the problem of people not getting treatment. Already, veterans have trouble getting jobs after their service, because people are afraid they’re going to “go postal” someday. Which is why many of them don’t seek treatment (although “treatment” at the VA usually means nothing more than becoming a guinea pig for a vast array of mood-altering drugs), and why many in society at large don’t seek it. What mother wants to admit that her child is “tetched in the head”?

    The problem with mental health screening for gun licensing is that a smart, although deeply disturbed, individual can easily fool a psychologist or social worker. When I was outprocessing from Iraq, I had to fill out a standardized form with questions about my sleep, any disturbing thoughts, etc. (I’m sure the process is much enhanced by now — that was in 2004.) Do you think for a moment that I would have risked having my return home delayed by choosing a “wrong” answer? Everything would be better once I got home, I figured, and even if not, it would be better dealt with there than in a military hospital or one of those Warrior Transition Battalions. Hell, no…

    A few years later, I found myself in a jail cell on suicide “watch” (which has little to do with any actual watching — more like being stripped of all clothing and accessories, including glasses, given a heavy smock of sorts made out of what looked and felt like flak vest material, and tossed into a bare cell with a metal shelf bolted to the wall and a metal toilet with no privacy from the window-slit). I would not be released until a psychologist could sign off that I was no danger to myself or anyone else. Although the experience actually deepened (understandably, I think) my despondency, there was no way I was not about to convince that lady, once she finally showed up, that it had all been an unfortunate misunderstanding, my words had been completely taken amiss, I was in a fine mood, etc.

    So, somebody who really wants a gun would be likely to fool any screener, and there’s no way they’re going to conduct a detailed background check for every gun registration like they do for security clearances.

    I think, like Chris said, the problem is much more slippery. It’s a culture, not only of violence, wherein death has become commonplace, sanitized to a degree, and almost amusing, but also of fear and loathing. We fear Muslims and have politicians in the Midwest passing laws forbidding Sharia law (as if somehow they are in danger of being forced into that, if they even know what it is). We fear immigrants, and have governors spinning tales of beheaded bodies strewn all over the desert because of them. We fear that the economically disadvantaged are really just trying to screw the rest of us over, and if we’re not careful, our government stands ready to take everything we’ve got and hand it over to them.

    I don’t know if there’s an institutional or legislative solution, because we do, after all, have the First Amendment. People are free to spew all manner of hatred and lies over our airwaves, and in our day and age, the lie truly can take hold before the truth can pull its boots on. I, personally, try to plead for understanding and tolerance wherever I find divisive rhetoric raising its ugly head, but I’m just one person, and a lot of times if you step into the crossfire, you just become a target for both sides, and even more misunderstanding and mistrust results.

    There are groups that try to make a difference, like that church that showed up at a pride parade with signs apologizing for how LGBTQ people have been treated by some Christians, but if it’s a movement, it’s still in its infancy. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I do think that once enough people can unite with a message of love, peace, and tolerance, a tipping point may be reached, and the voices of hate and fear will be overcome. “You can say I’m a dreamer…”

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